Timely move to rescue President Street Station

Jacques Kelly

April 18, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The state Board of Public Works has approved a $50,000 preservation grant for ramshackle President Street Station, a long-overdue rescue effort for the oldest surviving metropolitan rail terminal in the country and a major Civil War landmark.

The $50,000 stabilization grant approved yesterday, coupled with $42,000 in city funds, will pay for $92,000 worth of construction to keep the fragile walls and roof of the 141-year-old station from caving in. The station is city property.

Located at President and Fleet streets, near Little Italy, the terminal was once the starting point for all rail passengers bound for Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.

"There may be something a little older in Great Britain, but it's certainly the oldest in this country," Herbert H. Harwood, a local rail historian and author, said about the station.

The board's action was timely. Tomorrow is the 130th anniversary of the Pratt Street Riot, when members of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment were stoned by bystanders on Pratt Street near the point where it crosses Jones Falls. The incident occurred near where the National Aquarium now stands.

The regiment, called to arms in the early days of the Civil War to garrison Washington, detrained at the President Street Station, where it was met by angry locals. The soldiers were moving westward along Pratt to Camden Station when violence erupted. Four soldiers and 12 civilians died in the riot.

The riot of April 19, 1861, will be commemorated Saturday at noon at the President Street Station. A wreath-laying ceremony will be staged by both Union and Confederate re-enactment groups as part of an annual living-history event.

President-elect Abraham Lincoln passed through the President Street Station in February 1861 while traveling to Washington.

The old station, which last saw a train in the 1970s, was condemned by the city for an extension of Interstate 83 (the Jones Falls Expressway) that was never completed. Its long freight platforms, which extended along Fleet Street, were damaged by arson years ago. The surviving building is a two-story brick headhouse of 3,800 square feet, topped by a gently arched roof.

While the structure has many zealous supporters, it has languished in a badly deteriorated state for more than a decade. In that time, numerous groups, led by the Friends of President Street Station, have clamored for its preservation. Last month, virtually every local preservation and architectural group met at Preservation Maryland's downtown headquarters to push the station's cause.

"The station is significant not only for its association with the Civil War, but also because it is a rare example of Greek Revival-style public architecture in Baltimore in its day and its advanced roof-truss system was a prototype in railroad engineering," said architectural historian Amy Worden.

Once the building is stabilized, more work will be necessary before it could be offered for another use, such as a museum or an office building.

"The building is too important to wind up as an architect's office or restaurant. The ultimate future use should relate to the Civil War and to railroading," said Fred Shoken, the president of Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation group.

Proponents of using the station as a museum say it influenced station design all over the United States in the 1850s and 1860s. The building's arched-truss system was patented in the 1840s by bridge engineer William Howe.

Passengers stopped using the President Street Station in 1873 with the opening of Union Station, the forerunner of Pennsylvania Station, in the 1500 block of N. Charles St. But President Street remained a busy little freight operation with small locomotives, and later, special tractors that shuttled boxcars around the streets and tight curves of Fells Point.

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